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Festival of Faith Sermon
the Rev. Geoffrey Kirk (Forward in Faith, UK)
copyright 2001, and all rights retained by Fr. Kirk
St. Luke's Episcopal Church
Saturday, May 12, 2001
There is no Christianity without paradox.
The Cross is itself the great paradox of the universe: that one who is homousios with
the Father ('of his very being') did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself to take the form of a slave. And being found in human form,
humbled himself even to accepting death on a cross.
Catholic Anglicans have more reason than most to look into the heart of paradox.
Living as we have claimed to do, in what Evelyn Underhill called 'a respectable
suburb of the Catholic Church', we have always been open to the ridicule of those
who suppose themselves to dwell in the throbbing center (or, more especially, of
those who have recently moved house in that direction).
But proper people suspect that to deny one's origins may be to flaunt one's
I am not saying that God condemns anyone to perpetual suburbanity: All are called to
be free citizens with the saints in the Heavenly City. But there is nothing to be gained
by denying or being ashamed of the humble origins from which one began the
journey: or ashamed of the good people whose guidance set one's feet in the way.
So, at this great gathering, at which we reflect upon our future together as Catholic
Anglicans we should begin by rejoicing in our
inheritance. Listen, then to some words of that great Anglican layman of the
seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne:
'But because the name of a Christian is become too generall to
expresse our faith, there being a Geography of Religions as well as Lands, and
every Clime distinguished not onely by their lawes and limits, but
circumscribed by their doctrines and rules of Faith; To be particular, I
am of that reformed new-cast Religion, wherein I mislike nothing but
the name, of the same beliefe our Saviour taught, the Apostles
disseminated, the Fathers authorised, and the Martyrs confirmed; but by the sinister
ends of Princes, the ambition and avarice of Prelates, and the fatall
corruption of times, so decaied, impaired, and fallen from its native
beauty, that it required the carefull and charitable hands of these
times to restore it to its primitive integrity: Now the accidentall
occasion whereon, the slender meanes whereby, the low and abject
condition of the person by whom so good a worke was set on foot,
which in our adversaries beget contempt and scorn, fills me with wonder,
and is the very same objection the insolent Pagans first cast at Christ and
Note, if you will, all the paradoxes in that! And note, too, that Browne links them at
the end with the true and eternal paradox of the Cross.
Four centuries after Thomas Browne had delineated a simple Norfolk Doctor's faith,
Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher made his famous claims about the catholicity of the
Anglican position. We have no doctrines, he claimed, or orders, other than those of
the undivided Church.
I was brought up on that. I believed it. The paradox is that I still believe it and yet,
now, I know it not to be true.
Geoffrey Fisher died in 1972, and what a long way we have come since then!
Sometimes I am dazzled by the sheer audacity of those who have so successfully
brought novelty into the heart of this Church's life.
First, it was marriage.
Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness
of God and concludes with a vision of 'the wedding feast of the Lamb'. The Lord
Jesus (as even Frank Griswold is prepared to admit) was pretty definitive about
matrimony. He proclaimed it, afresh, against all the customs of the days of his own
incarnation, both pagan and Jewish, to be a creation ordinance. 'It was because you
were so unteachable that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives; but it was not like
this from the beginning. Now I say to you ...'
Later on, Paul proclaimed marriage to be a living image of the true union of heaven
and earth; and that consummate phrase maker Tom Cranmer epitomised the whole fifth
chapter to the Ephesians in unforgettable words: 'signifying unto us that mystical
union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.'
But all that went by the board a long time ago. Now second and third marriages are
common among Episcopalians (even among bishops). And the Presiding Bishop can
boast that the change was so easily made, and so readily acceptable, that it is a model
for forthcoming and inevitable changes over gay sex.
Then it was Holy Orders.
The orders of the Church, of bishop, priest and deacon, are not her own creation.
They come as a gift. And a primary part of that gracious gift is the gift of unity.
Because orders are the means by which the unique and
unchanging priesthood of Christ is everywhere exercised in a changing world, their
continuity with the past and their universal acceptability in the present are part of their
essential nature and purpose.
It is a source of comfort to us, and admonition to him, that Jack Iker's orders, as he
comes to this alter today, are one with those of Ignatius of Antioch as he crossed the
Empire to greet martyrdom at the lion's mouth, one with those of both Thomas
Cranmer and John Fisher as they faced one another across the great divide of the
Reformation, and one with those of the Bishop of Aipo-Rongo, who will tomorrow
celebrate the Mass with his people after a two-day journey into the rain forests of
Papua New Guinea.
But all that unity is gone. It was destroyed in the first ordinations of women nearly
thirty years ago, when we did what the Church had never done and what the greater
part of it can never accept.
And if you were to ask me which is more destructive of Catholic Order, the decision
of your General Convention to make the innovation mandatory or the pronouncements
of the Eames Commission that those orders have 'a degree of provisionality', I have to
say that I cannot tell. What I do know is that those orders were not received in a spirit
of Christ-like humility, but in one of triumph and self-consciousness.
The women ordained in Philadelphia greeted the gift of the Holy Spirit with
clenched-fist salutes; and the first woman bishop in America, aping the godless
Napoleon, put the mitre on her own head, to the unforgettable encouragement of
Bishop Ed Browning 'Go for It!'.
Ours is a religion of signs made actual. No good can come of such things.
And now it is gay marriages.
And what are we to say of that? In a world which is starved of love, Christians are
called to compassion. We are not to judge, lest we be judged; nor inquire imperiously
into the hearts and motives and bedrooms of others, for fear that the final judge, who
knows us through and through, will at the last condemn us for the sins and misplaced
affections which we know to be our own.
But we cannot sanctify what scripture so plainly forbids. Hear some wise words of
the great Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenburg:
'Since on this principle the Bible is not time-bound, Jesus' word is
foundation and the criterion for all Christian pronouncements on
sexuality, not just marriage in particular, but our entire creaturely
identities as sexual beings. According to Jesus' teaching, human
sexuality as male and female is intended for the indissoluble
of marriage. This standard informs Christian teaching about the entire
domain of sexual behavior.'
Brothers and sisters, I am all for casuistry (which G. K. Chesterton, you will
remember, defined as a science like botany; the science of
finding beautiful things in unexpected places). But there is no casuistry without law,
no compassion which means anything at all, without an ethical framework in which
mercy is given meaning and context.
The whole world, in its sin and perplexity, cries out for recognition: "Love me. Accept
Me." Jesus is the workhorse which every partisan
interest seeks to hitch to its bandwagon. But we -- you and I -- know him to be his
own man-- that is why we follow him. In this matter, as all others, follow him we
must -- or perish.
Now I should say that I do not suppose for one moment that any of these things --
marriage discipline the maleness of the priesthood, the understanding of human
sexuality as a creation ordinance -- is dispensable. Nor can any of these positions be
abandoned. I believe that these issues have assailed the Church in the order of their
logical and doctrinal priority; but that they go together. As doctrinal deviations they
form a set -- a sequence of related concepts, such that you cannot have one without the
other. We have, I believe, no authority to vary any of them. They are doctrines which
have been received and maintained semper, ubique et ab omnibus (always,
everywhere and by all). They are not simply random pieces of the family silver, which
can be bartered away in some sort of garage sale as a cheap compromise with
modernity. They are at the heart of what it is to be an obedient Church.
So there, then, is the paradox in which we live.
We are seeking to be faithful in a church which has self-consciously embraced
infidelity. We supposed, by now, that it must have dawned on almost everybody else
as it has dawned on us that the patron saint of the Presiding Bishop is St. Pandora of
the Box, that well-known non-Virgin and no-Martyr. But it hasn't.
So what are we to do?
We can, I think, try two solutions. We can seek to escape the paradox, or we can
embrace it. You will not, I think, be surprised when I say that, for my money, they
amount to the same thing.
We could seek to escape the paradox by entering another communion; and I certainly
have no intention to criticise those who have done so. I have to say, however, that I
have myself no intention of seeking refuge in a boast smaller than the one in which I
find myself. But is there any vessel afloat which is (in the meaning of the hymn) an
'ark from the ocean's roar'? What besets us, besets them or has done, or will do.
On the other hand, we can stay where we are, and be what we are called to be,
witnesses to the faith of Christ.
But you are way ahead of me. You know the Greek for 'witness' is 'martyr'; and you
know, in consequence that I am asking of you what only He can ask. But, in his
name, and as Bishop Browning would say: 'Go for it!'.
Stay where you are -- be reviled by all, rejected, trampled upon by authority. Nothing
-- I repeat nothing -- you can do would be more
pleasing to Him. When the days seem long, and the nights lonely, and the bishops of
Hell are barking at the door, take down your Bibles and read how it was with Paul:
'We do nothing that people might object to, Paul writes, so as not to
bring discredit on our function as servants of God. Instead, we
prove that we are servants of God by great fortitude in times of
suffering, in times of hardship and distress, when we are flogged or
sent to prison, or mobbed; labouring, sleepless, starving. We prove
that we are God's servants by our purity of knowledge; by patience
and kindness; by a spirit of holiness and by a love free from
affectation; by the world of truth and by the power of God; by being
armed with the weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in
the left; prepared for honour or disgrace, for praise or blame; taken
for impostors while we are genuine; obscure yet famous; said to be
dying, and behold we live; rumored to have been executed before
we are sentenced; thought most miserable, yet always rejoicing;
taken for paupers, we make others rich; thought to own nothing and
yet possessing all things.'
The greatest Anglican preacher of the last century, Fr. Austin Farrer, began a famous
sermon from an inscription on the side of a florist's
van. The van was delivering decorations for a College ball, and was parked below his
windows. The words inscribed were as follows: 'Wreathes and flowers for all
occasions'. That, said Farrer, is what preachers are called to provide: 'wreathes and
flowers for all occasions'.
And so I end by fulfilling the preacher's obligation to you. 'Wreathes and flowers'.
We are none of us, I suspect, in a mood for bouquets, (and in any case none of us
deserves them). But where Catholic Anglicanism in America is concerned, let us agree
together today, that funeral wreathes are premature.